When your vital work caring for terminally ill people already takes its toll on you emotionally, how do you cope when your job is made so much more challenging by the pandemic and its impact on not only the families St Luke’s serves, but the welfare of you and your own loved ones, too?

Selina Rogers and Becci Stafford are Healthcare Assistants (HCAs) with our End of Life Urgent Care Service, which runs from 8am to 10pm seven days a week. In partnership with Marie Curie, it provides co-ordinated, bespoke end of life care and support to patients who need this at home during a time of crisis or change in their condition. The team’s remit extends across Plymouth and out as far as Salcombe, Tavistock and the moors, too, meaning frequent travel to isolated areas where accessing all kinds of services can be more difficult.

As HCAs, Selina and Becci are central to the high-calibre care the team provides, ensuring our patients are as comfortable as possible – and their loved ones as at ease as possible – in the midst of very challenging circumstances. The ‘storm’ of the pandemic has meant that their sensitivity and compassion have been even more critical than ever, with the past few months seeing them pull out all the stops to remain the reassuring presence families desperately need, all while managing their own anxieties and concerns around COVID-19.

Selina said: “Helping to look after people who are dying is not an easy job, but we do it because we understand what a difference it makes to patients when their dignity is respected and they feel understood. We know how hard it is for their family members, too, who are often shouldering a lot of the caring responsibilities for the person who is terminally ill.

“That’s why we’ve been determined to maintain the outstanding service so many rely on, despite the many challenges of carrying out our work during the pandemic. As with NHS frontline staff, we’ve had to use all the necessary PPE to help keep our patients, colleagues and ourselves safe, and though we understand just how essential it is, it has been very tough knowing patients can’t see our smiles, or feel the warmth of our hugs or the reassurance of our hand on their shoulder.

“It goes against our natures not to be tactile, so we’ve adapted by telling them when we’re smiling, and even saying to them, “It’s right now that I’d have given you a hug”, just to make sure they know how much we care.”

Even more difficult has been the shock of seeing their patients die much more quickly than in pre-pandemic times. Whereas normally patients live for up to around 40 days from the team’s initial visit, giving time for a comforting familiarity to build between them, many have sadly passed away within just one or two days.

Becci said: “It has felt really hard comprehend at times, especially seeing them looking reasonably healthy one day and finding out that sadly, they have died the next.

“We understand the reasons for this – many people have been getting referred to us much later than they normally would because of the difficulties they’ve had accessing their GP during lockdown or deteriorating more rapidly due to the pandemic delaying their hospital treatment – but understanding it doesn’t take away the shock and sadness we feel.

“As a team we’ve all had to pull together more than ever to help each other through because every one of us has found it very hard-going.”

Of course, as well as their care and concern for their patients and the families around them, our clinical teams have also faced making tough personal sacrifices to reduce their own loved ones’ risk of contracting the virus.

Becci, who has young children, made the heart-wrenching decision to live separately from them for seven weeks, taking them to live with their father to help protect them while she cared for two patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I felt huge guilt in choosing to stay apart from my children, and although I knew it was the right thing to do, I struggled. It’s at times like that I appreciate the team around me even more. At various times, we’ve all been close to breaking point due to the fear of the virus, anxiety and fatigue, but we’ve got through by being there for one another, laughing and crying together. As a unit, we’re stronger than ever.”

Selina concurs: “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but we have so much empathy for each other and we’re like a family now. We’ve had superb leadership from Sharon Mayer throughout and all our nurses have been amazing, too. It gives you great faith in your team, knowing the resilience that’s been forged through what we’ve all been through.”

Listening to Becci and Selina, it’s clear from the emotion in their voices that they’ve been so tested in recent months yet remain completely dedicated to those in their care.

Becci said: “When a family thanks you for being alongside them from the very first visit to the last, saying how that continuity was made such a big difference to them, it’s incredibly fulfilling. It feels really special.”

On Wednesday, Becci and Selena – accompanied by Sharon and Claire – will be putting their best foot forward, walking from Brooklands to Turnchapel, via several St Luke’s charity shops, to raise money for our charity. They’re doing it as part of Make your own Midnight Walk, the fun, flexible ‘replacement’ for Midnight Walk, which has had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

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